Relentless, savage emotional cruelty pulls and tussles with an equally deep yet taut poetic sensitivity in Ben Hobson’s ache-laden struggle between a teenage son and iron hard Father, after the death of their Mother and wife.
Set in early 60s Australian whaling industry locales in Queensland, To Become a Whale is a beautiful book. Hobson’s pared-back prose strikes the perfect balance required to express the intense, fraught relationship between Walter, a hard suffering and spirited whaler, ex-serviceman and farmer, and his 13 year old son, Sam.
The pall thrown by Elizabeth’s death precipitates life-changing decisions for Walter and Sam. For Walter, it is to toughen up a weak son by taking him directly away to Tangalooma whaling station and begin his training in a new life, mere days after the funeral, almost as if there had been no death. For Sam, the sudden pressure of spending constant time with a father who barely communicates, yet overbears him with expectations of adult toughness of spirit, forces him into a destructive emotional maelstrom of wanting to please and be approved of by his father, all the while knowing there is much of his father which should be rightly rejected.
Unflinchingly, Hobson pits the father at the son, and the son pushes mightily to adapt, to prove himself in each cruel circumstance Walter places them.
It is a monstrous exercise in play. So young a boy feverishly strains and leaps to comprehend the incomprehensible and attempts to live a life he is not yet grown for. More so monstrous is attempting to divine the Aussie male savage bravado within a father who treats a son so.
Yet this deep, unbearable tale holds a reader close at heart. It is filled with an easily recognisable Australian landscape painted by Hobson in sharp but naturalistic textures, lending themselves willingly to the understated poetry within the prose from which Walter and Sam spring to life. Sea, creatures, land, humidity and colour are transformed into the deeply emblematic inner emotional terrain Sam urgently navigates in his desperate struggles, as does his Father.
Jolting moments in which significant developments are telegraphed, cannot fatally break the overwhelming power of this debut novel.
Reviewed by David O’Brien
Rating out of 10: 9
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Release date: June 2017